Today's trivia question: What is the only wine served by the glass at the Ritz Carlton in London and the Cheese Cave in Faribault, Minn.?
The answer is Chateau Belle-Vue's Le Chateau 2005. It is being poured at the Ritz because it's seriously tasty and has garnered several international awards, and at the Cheese Cave because Belle-Vue co-owner Jill Johnson Boutros hails from Faribault. OK, it also pairs well with those cheeses and summer sausages.
And don't let the French name fool you. Belle-Vue actually is one of two stellar Lebanese wineries with Minnesota connections, along with Assaad and Katy Hark's Batroun Mountains.
Jill Johnson and Naji Boutros met in 1987 as Notre Dame students and fell in love over the course of three weeks. Boutros' mother back home was not smitten with the possibility of a Minnesota daughter-in-law. "The only thing she knew about American women was the TV ladies of 'Dynasty' and 'Dallas,'" Naji said. "So she called her friends and they lined up all these Mediterranean women on a couch. But my heart was somewhere else."
They married in 1990 and moved to London, where Naji worked at Merrill Lynch and Jill raised three children over the next decade. But something was missing. "Life was all about the next deal. I'd wake up on Monday morning, jump on a plane and be back Friday night," Naji said. "I was in front of the Duomo in Milan and just felt this big void, like I needed to go in. So I did and saw the cedars of Lebanon carved into the altar."
Jill chimed in: "So he called me from outside the Duomo and said, 'We need to move.'"
In 2000, Lebanon was emerging from a civil war -- Naji's parents' house was surrounded by sandbags -- so they settled in his mother's native village, war-ravaged, nearly abandoned Bhamdoun.
They bought a house in the mountain hamlet 15 miles east of Beirut and started renovating it, mapping out a few acres of merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon and planting the vines to the piped-in sounds of "The Four Seasons." "The people thought we were crazy, not only for planting but for doing it to Vivaldi," Naji said.
Turns out, though, that their wine is crazy good. La Renaissance ($33) is dusty, lusty and lovely, a paragon of rustic elegance. Le Chateau ($48) tastes like something straight out of one of the top houses in Saint-Émilion -- Naji swears that his village also resembles that Bordeaux mecca -- with fabulous structure and depth. Both are sold at BrightWines in North St. Paul and Carriage House in Faribault.
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The Boutroses' fellow Lebanese-Americans, Assaad and Katy Hark, also are producing earthy delights at their Batroun Mountains winery, 30 miles north of Beirut.
Their Rhöne-style Pays des Patriarches ($15) is smooth and a bit smoky, with a vibrant mouth feel. The Bordeaux blend Prestige Rouge ($19) has a splendid balance of fruit, dust and mineral. The wines are available at several Twin Cities retail outlets and two local restaurants, Manny's Steakhouse in Minneapolis and Beirut in West St. Paul.
The Harks spent most of the 1990s in Minneapolis -- Assaad had graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked for the family's locally based wholesale business. But they wanted their kids to be educated in their homeland.
Assaad had developed an ardor for wine and taken courses from the University of California-Davis, that led to a winemaker's certification. With more time on their hands back in Lebanon, the Harks started planting vines together. A lot of vines, as in 35,000.
It's a true family affair, with their six children pitching in at harvest time. "Assaad bought each of them a clipper with their name on it," Katy said.
"The goal was to have estate-grown grapes and make estate-bottled wines," said Assaad, who serves as both winemaker and vineyard manager. "That's the way to guarantee consistency and good winemaking."
Assaad said he now "spends 80 percent of my time in the field;" Katy helps out in the vineyards and focuses on marketing ("I like being in the fields more -- less headaches").
The Harks still spend three months a year in the Twin Cities but are headed back next week to Lebanon, home of what Assaad calls "perfect weather for winemaking."
That sounds almost as welcome amid a Minnesota winter as the hearty wines these two couples are producing.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643